Ada Lovelace Day: A Celebration

Milena Popova explains the history and significance of Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of women in STEM, and shows the importance of this day for digital rights.

Image: CC-BY-SA Helen Harrop

Back in April this year, the Guardian published its “Open 20” - a list of twenty “fighters for internet freedom”. As with any such list, the opportunities for criticism and disagreement are endless. What struck me in particular, though, is that not only does the list contain just four women but one of them is Ada Lovelace. As illustrious and pioneering a woman as the Countess of Lovelace was, she died in 1852, over a hundred years before anything that can be legitimately seen as a progenitor of the internet, and thus can hardly be described as a fighter for internet freedom. You know we’re struggling to showcase female participation in a field when we have to scrape the barrel for examples from before the field even existed.

Ada Lovelace’s name, however, lives on in an effort to address the issue of lack of female participation in science and technology. Ada Lovelace Day, now in its fourth year, is an international celebration of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). It originates from a recognition of the importance of successful role models who can inspire more and more girls to take up a career in these traditionally male-dominated fields. On Ada Lovelace Day, which this year is October 16th, bloggers around the world - from Kiribati to American Samoa - write about women in STEM whom they admire, who have inspired them, who have blazed a trail for us to follow.

Having participated in Ada Lovelace Day for the last two years, I love the wide variety of women people choose to write about. Yes, a lot write about the Countess herself, who was, among other things, the first computer programmer. Quite a few celebrate their mothers, daughters, or female teachers - because the best inspiration is that which is personal and closest to us. Scientists and technologists from all fields feature among the blogs, as does Valentina Tereshokova - the first woman in space.

The shocking lack of imagination from the Guardian notwithstanding, there are actually quite a few women in the digital rights and internet freedom space, who could do with greater recognition of their contributions. Digital rights is an area where knowing and understanding the technology is just the beginning. It’s where tech meets people, society and legislation, and to be great at digital rights you have to have a grasp of all four. A couple of years ago Cory Doctorow wrote about Cindy Cohn, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Legal Director, who is a great example of this.

Journalist, author and freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke is another case in point. As a journalist, information is her livelihood and the currency she deals in. With information being increasingly digitised, we are rapidly finding ourselves in an “information war” in which technology gives people unprecedented powers to hold the state to account while states are desperately trying to claw back some of that power as well as extend their capability to keep tabs on and control their citizens. The balance of power between the state and the individual is shifting, and that’s the precarious frontline that Heather finds herself on.

ORG’s very own former Executive Directors Suw Charman-Anderson (who is also the driving force behind Ada Lovelace Day) and Becky Hogge; BoingBoing editor and technology and science communicator Xeni Jardin; researcher, writer and one of the public faces of the Chaos Computer Club Constanze Kurz; German open government campaigner and Pirate Party member Anke Domscheit-Berg: these are just some of the great women currently active in digital rights whose achievements I would like to celebrate this Ada Lovelace Day. Who are your digital rights heroines?


Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She is also a member of ORG's board and continues to write for the ORGzine in a personal capacity. She tweets as @elmyra

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By Milena Popova on Oct 16, 2012

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